Person touches photovoltaic system

Recycling and disposing of photovoltaic systems


Photovoltaic systems enable us to generate environmentally friendly electricity and need to be robust enough to withstand the elements, from sunlight to hail and even snow. PV systems are generally very robust and entirely capable of withstanding the weather for decades with relatively little loss of performance. Eventually, however, even the most robust solar module becomes worn out. So, what happens then? In this article, we provide an overview of the key points you should know about how to recycle and dispose of photovoltaic systems properly.

Can photovoltaic systems be recycled?

Is it actually possible to recycle photovoltaic systems? The short answer is: yes! Solar modules are predominantly made from aluminium, glass and different plastics. Technological progress means that all these materials can be reused without any issues. However, solar modules also contain small quantities of lead and cadmium. It is therefore advisable to engage a specialist firm to recycle PV systems properly.

Today, the recycling rate for solar modules is over 95% (as of 2022). This means that more than 95% of all the raw materials that make up photovoltaic systems can be recycled and reused. At present, of course, the volume of decommissioned PV modules and solar cells being sent for recycling remains low, but this will change in the years ahead. The waste disposal industry is preparing to recycle growing quantities of these materials.

How are solar modules recycled?

Solar modules have a very long service life and undergo regular maintenance. It is not uncommon for solar PV systems to remain operational for 20 to 30 years, harnessing the power of the sun to generate environmentally friendly electricity.

Photovoltaic systems are recycled when they can no longer be repaired or reused. Thanks to the high recycling rate for solar modules, a photovoltaic system has a positive environmental balance even after it is decommissioned. However, for a small number of components, the cost of recycling still exceeds the value of the recovered materials – but constant progress is also set to shift this in favour of recycling in the future. The table below shows which of your photovoltaic system’s components can be recycled and given a second life.

How should I dispose of solar modules?

Disposing of old solar power systems is straightforward for consumers because Germany has made recycling photovoltaic systems a legal requirement. Disposing of your old solar modules falls under the Electrical and Electronic Equipment Act (ElektroG). This means that manufacturers are obligated to accept PV systems returned to them free of charge and ensure they are disposed of properly. In this context, the term “manufacturer” is very broad and can also refer to the company that installed your solar power system on your roof. As a result, the law still applies even if your photovoltaic system was built abroad, such as in China.

In addition, private individuals can dispose of up to 40 PV modules at municipal recycling depots in Germany free of charge. However, it is best to call ahead if you are planning to dispose of your modules this way.

Larger quantities of solar modules, such as for commercial installations, are usually disposed of by their operators in cooperation with external service providers. At SENEC, we arrange for solar power systems to be collected and recycled by our disposal partner, take-e-way. Many solar companies have signed up to the industry-wide reclamation system PV Cycle, which organises the recycling of modules and solar cells.

How much does it cost to dispose of solar modules?

Not only is returning decommissioned photovoltaic systems free for private consumers, you can also take advantage of free collection twice per year. This means you only have to cover the costs of uninstalling your solar power system and any storage costs for the dismantled solar modules. These costs obviously depend on the size of your installation and the number of solar modules you intend to send for recycling.

Does disposing of solar modules harm the environment?

The more photovoltaic systems are installed, the more solar modules will be sent for disposal a few decades down the line. Environmentally friendly solar electricity generation has taken off in recent decades. As a result, the quantity of solar power systems in need of recycling will also increase significantly in the years ahead. Even today, as many of the materials in solar cells as possible are recyclable – and new technologies will enable us to recover and reuse even more in future. However, proper and professional disposal is vital. It ensures that no hazardous materials or substances are released into the environment, thereby making your photovoltaic system even more sustainable.

Summary: Recycling photovoltaic systems

Recycling a photovoltaic system is straightforward and free of charge for private individuals. Manufacturers and installation companies are obligated to accept returns of solar systems they produced or installed free of charge and send them for recycling. In addition, you can hand over up to 40 decommissioned modules free of charge at a municipal recycling depot.

It is already possible to recycle the vast majority of materials used to build a photovoltaic system. Aluminium, glass and even the semiconductor materials can all be recycled and given a second life – often in new, more modern photovoltaic systems. Ensuring that your photovoltaic system is disposed of and recycled properly further enhances its sustainability – and that can only be good for the environment.